My Path to 'Mental Illness First Aid'

From young adult with mental illness to facilitator

Shannon Ryan, MA

Reprinted from "First Responders for Young People" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 3(2), pp. 23-24

stock photoMy first experiences living with mental illness occurred in my late teen years—but neither myself nor my family and friends recognized what was actually going on.

By the time I was 17, I would spend months with an unlimited amount of energy and countless creative ideas, which often meant I slept very little. Eventually I would become agitated and irritable with my family and friends.

Alternatively, I also experienced many severe depressions as a young woman. I would find myself unable to cope with school, friends or family obligations. At times I could barely leave my bedroom—my anxiety was so severe that I simply found it easier to stay isolated and keep activities to a minimum.

I was unable to comprehend that what I was experiencing was mania, depression and anxiety. I turned to self-medicating with alcohol and marijuana in an attempt to manage my extreme mood shifts. In 1988, just before my 19th birthday, I was hospitalized for the first time, on the psychiatric ward in a hospital in northern BC.

Many, many years went by before I was accurately diagnosed and could successfully manage my mental illness. In fact, it wasn’t until March of 2003 that I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and panic disorder.

After being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and experiencing the devastating consequences of an acute-but-unrecognized and untreated episode of mania and psychosis, I lost a lot. Not only did I lose my contract with Health Canada, my apartment and my ability to care for my then 12-year-old daughter for nine long months, but I also lost my ability to believe in myself—to believe that my life was ever going to get back on track and that I would regain my well-being over time.

Thankfully, my family, friends and medical advisors did not give up hope. I leaned on the people around me until I was able to slowly and very painfully regain confidence in myself and the person I was—despite the psychiatric labels, which took me a long time to come to terms with.

Over the past two years, I have worked very hard at my recovery process. I have been able to stabilize my moods and enjoy and fully participate in my life—including working as a facilitator with the Vancouver-Burnaby branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

In 2003 I spent a lot of my time walking through my neighbourhood in Vancouver. One day I came upon the Vancouver-Burnaby branch of CMHA on West Broadway, where I was greeted in such a warm and friendly manner that at first I wanted to turn around and run. But instead, I decided to stay and look through the amazing collection of books, videos and other publications in the resource room. Over the next few weeks, I continued to stop by CMHA to browse. I devoured the literature on bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders and psychosis.

Then, after accessing some of CMHA’s services, I was encouraged to apply for training on a new and exciting course called Mental Illness First Aid (MIFA). I have been facilitating the two-day MIFA course over the past two years for government, private, education, community, health care and not-for-profit organizations all over the Lower Mainland.

The course is designed to give the general public a better understanding of mental illnesses and the basic skills and knowledge to effectively respond to individuals who are experiencing mental distress in our communities. We teach first responder skills that increase confidence in recognizing the signs and symptoms of mental illness. Participants learn to respond in a compassionate, safe and supportive way, and to refer individuals to the appropriate resources in their communities.

MIFA follows a physical first aid model, with its “ABC” approach. Instead of Airway, Breathing and Circulation, however, the ABC in Mental Illness First Aid stands for Acknowledge changes, Be proactive and Check-in and follow-up.

The Mental Illness First Aid course will soon have a youth-specific version that will help parents, teachers, friends and mentors working with youth. Recovery is faster and more complete when intervention happens early on in the illness. Looking back, I know that when I started to experience depression and anxiety as a young woman, my family, my friends and I didn’t know what was going on. None of us knew then how to effectively manage the situation. When young people have struggles with their mental health, it is important to be able to provide them with the information, support and interventions that will help them recover.

Although my recovery is ongoing, I have an amazingly full and rich life. I wouldn’t change the past: sharing my personal experience of living with and effectively managing mental illness means that other individuals can learn from my experience. They, in turn, will be able to appropriately respond to others experiencing an acute or chronic mental illness. In sharing my journey, I have been able to show course participants that anyone can experience mental illness—and, with the right support from family, friends, colleagues and medical professionals, most people will recover fully.

About the author
Shannon lives in Vancouver with her 15-year-old daughter. She has a master’s degree in Social Anthropology focusing on population health and the social determinants of health